Jul 28, 2014

What I Learned While Binge-Watching Chopped

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on March 18, 2014. 

What I Learned While Binge-Watching ChoppedAfter my cableless self tried and failed to access the Olympics through one of NBC’s ten thousand Olympics apps, I gave up and instead went for something with a similar level of diversity, competition, triumph of human spirit, but with more crepes.

Yes, while the rest of the world watched incredible athletes push things/themselves over ice a few thousand times, I binge-watched the Food Network’s “Chopped.” As stated, this show has everything: heart-warming stories, interpersonal drama, character development, exotic foods, clock-ticking excitement, accents, and finishing salt.

“Chopped,” if you haven’t seen it, is one of the Food Network’s most popular shows. It’s a cooking competition for professional chefs. Four chefs, usually from very different backgrounds, are given three picnic baskets, one per course, of insane, incongruous ingredients which they must creatively incorporate into a delicious dish and serve to the judges. The judges’ panel is made up of famous chefs and restaurateurs, some from the Food Network stable and some not. One contestant is eliminated at the end of each round, and at the end, the winner goes home with $10,000.

While some might argue that prime time Food Network has become less educational, I disagree. Not only have I learned about a bunch of ingredients and techniques from watching “Chopped,” I’ve also picked up some valuable life lessons.

1) You are not above any ingredient

The whole point of the show is to see what happens when trained chefs are pushed outside of their comfort zones with weird food and time limits. The fastest way for a chef to lose a round is to turn up their nose at an ingredient. “Um, I don’t even eat leftovers,” said one, twenty minutes before being sent home on a leftovers-themed episode. “Do you know how many chemicals are in this snack cake?” said another, before losing on a nostalgia episode. Why yes, yes I do know how many chemicals are in that snack cake, but that’s not the point. The point is you take that snack cake and you make me a beautiful meal that transforms those sprinkles, darnit.

Life lesson: You’re not above small tasks. The trash has to be taken out, the leftovers have to be repurposed. The fastest way to move forward is figure out what needs to be done and do it.

2) Sob stories get you nowhere

Oh, so the chef grew up in a tough neighborhood and brought himself up by the bootstraps and now he wants to win “Chopped” to prove to himself that he’s made it? Well, that’s great, but his competitor was hit by a train and he’s out to prove he can still use his arms and legs. (This was a really great episode, guys.) While, yes, a chef’s personal triumph is impressive and may have gotten him on the show in the first place, he can’t rely on that to get him to round two.

Life lesson: Your story is great, but it’s not going to win you any awards. When it comes down to it, you move forward because of your talent and hard work, not your past trials.

3) Keep a cool head

I see this time and time again: a chef goes to flambe a thing, and all of a sudden their whole stovetop is on fire. They have two choices: flap their hands and yell while their food burns, or stay calm and throw some baking soda on it or cover the flames with a pot lid. My favorite was when a chef blew up her food, and while she was still flapping her hands, her competitor turned around, dosed her station with baking soda, and went back to chopping onions without missing a beat.

Life lesson: When your life starts to go up in smoke, stay calm. Identify the problem, identify the solution, take care of it, and move on.

5) It’s not a desert without a cookie

It’s the final round, and the chef has made some beautiful ice cream and served it with sauce and some fresh berries. The ice cream is original, the sauce brings depth, and the berries provide freshness. It’s a beautiful, well-rounded dessert, or so the chef thinks. When she serves it to the judges, they screw up their faces. Yes, it’s delicious, but couldn’t you have included a tuile? Maybe a cookie might have rounded this out? Did you even turn on your oven?  This is dessert, for goodness’ sake. It’s not a proper dessert without a baked good, and it’s a better dessert if that baked good is a cookie.

Life lesson: Always have cookies on hand.

4) Being “chopped” is not the end of the world

So she forgot a basket ingredient, or she undercooked her chicken, or, heaven-forbid, she cut herself and bled onto the plate. And now Ted Allen is lifting the cloche and showing her failed dish. And now the judges are listing her faults. “And these are just some of the reasons we had to chop you” is ringing in her ears as she walks down the back hallway, out to do her final interview segment. Again, she has a few ways she can go: she can criticize the judges’ decision, she can fling herself into the depths of despair,  or she can be disappointed, but learn from her mistakes. The contestants who see their loss as a growth opportunity always leave the best taste in the viewers’s mouths.

Life lesson: Take constructive criticism to heart and use your failures as a way to move forward, not back

Are you a Chopped fan? Have you learned any great life lessons? Or are you more of a “turn the TV on, veg out” type?

Jul 21, 2014

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe’s Frozen Foods

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on May 12, 2014. 

Take, Taste, Toss: Trader Joe's Frozen Foods

Our contributors give you brief reviews of recent cookbooks/ kitchen gadgets/ recipes they’ve tried, and tell you whether you should take it home, just give it a taste, or toss it out.

I’ve said before that Trader Joe’s frozen meals are my go-to no-stress quick dinner. I probably eat one of their Indian-type frozen dinners a week, and I make sure I always have a few on hand for emergencies. Compared to other “healthy” frozen dinners, TJ’s taste the most like good take-out, if not home-cooked. (Note: yes, I call Trader Joe’s by a nickname. And, yes, everything Trader Joe’s sells is healthy. This is a proven fact as shown by all the leaves in their advertising. Shut up. I know.) So, here’s a rundown of some of my favorites (and maybe not so favorites).

Image from Brand Eating
Image from Brand Eating

Trader Joe’s Butter Chicken

Butter chicken is an Indian dish of yogurt-marinated chicken in a creamy tomato sauce, traditionally made in a tandoor. I do not have a tandoor. I do have a local Indian buffet, however, and TJ’s version tastes exactly like what I can get for $10.95 on my lunch break, but for less than half the cost . From what I can tell, there is more yogurt and cream in the dish than butter, but there is definitely a buttery silkiness to the chicken. Because the rice and the chicken are in separate compartments, you really have to pour the two together into a bowl, making this slightly difficult for, say, eating at work, but it makes sense that they need to be cooked separately in order to keep from turning to mush. I am just saying.

Verdict: Take

trader joes ancient grains pizza

Trader Joe’s Ancient Grains Pizza

I have had mixed results with Trader Joe’s frozen pizzas. They’re generally on the small side, making them 1.5 or so of a serving, which of course means that they are magically just one serving. Their crusts tend to be either too crackery or too doughy, which could be my unreliable oven, but I don’t think it’s just that. I am, however, very interested in this whole “ancient grains” trend, and, I mean, I am always willing to give pizza another chance. This pizza has my favorite crust of all the Trader Joe’s pizza crusts, including their pre-packaged bake-your-own crust. It’s nutty and wholesome-tasting in the best way, and this is probably because of the mix of grains. The first ingredient in the crust is still just regular whole wheat flour, but then comes a mix of millet, einkorn, spelt, sunflower seeds, and flax. A+ frozen pizza crust. The toppings leave a bit to be desired: the cheese is a bit too rich, the cherry tomatoes too sweet, and the asparagus too hard to eat. Like most things in life, these can be balanced out by adding some olives or capers. B- toppings, needs improvement.

Verdict: Taste, with capers.

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Trader Joe’s Chocolate Croissants

Chocolate croissants are my gateway pastry. I was strictly a no-sweets girl until a college friend introduced me to chocolate croissants. Reader, I married them. Or at least started a long-term serious relationship with pastries that has since expanded to donuts and pie and all sorts of things I used to ignore. But I’m getting off-topic. Anyway. Chocolate croissants, my true love. I’ve wanted to make them at home for ages, but croissants apparently take several days and water directly from the Seine to make from scratch, so when I saw the frozen chocolate croissants at TJ’s, I knew I had to try them. When you open the package, you get what looks like four little pats of butter. These are the unproofed croissants. These need to rise for six to eight hours, which is not nothing, but it’s also not importing a french guy to make you breakfast, so. Also, watching dough rise is never not magical, and every time I make these croissants, I spend most of my time running back into the kitchen to see what progress has been made and texting pictures of it to my friends and family.

Now, because I love chocolate croissants so much, I’m fairly picky. There are many bad chocolate croissants in the world. These are good croissants. They’re light and fluffy and flaky, and you get to eat them warm out of the oven. There’s a good amount of chocolate, and, unlike many coffee shop croissants, the chocolate isn’t sitting like a brick on the bottom of the pastry. If nothing else, these are worth it just because you can wake up to a warm, fresh pastry without leaving your house.

Verdict: Take. Take them on a regular 6-8 hour rotation.

Jul 14, 2014

Ode to a Chicago Hot Dog

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on June 3, 2014.

Ode to a Chicago Hot DogThey were a family tradition long before I knew they were a Chicago tradition. I’d order “a cheese dog with everything but mustard, onions, and peppers. And no celery salt.” My dad said that you can’t call it “everything” if it’s actually missing four ingredients, but that logic didn’t trump the coolness of that “with everything.”

Over the years, my tastes matured and I slowly added more ingredients to my hot dog, until I could order the traditional “everything”: sesame seed bun, Vienna sausage, onion, tomato, cucumber, bright green relish, mustard, celery salt, a pickle spear, pickled sport peppers, and, occasionally, melted American cheese.

(You could also substitute a Maxwell Street Polish [strong vowels on that, please, like you were born here: MAx-wel Street PO-lish SA-sich], the Chicago dog’s near cousin, slightly spicier, with grilled onions, mustard, and maybe some sport peppers. That would be acceptable. But that is not what we are talking about today.)

You’ve probably noticed something missing from the ingredient list. Can we talk about ketchup? And why it doesn’t belong on a Chicago hot dog? Is it because we have some sort of anti-Heinz vendetta? No. It’s because ketchup is mostly sugar, and sugar is a flavor killer. (This is why so many little kids put ketchup on everything: it dulls the taste of whatever it is they’re uncomfortable eating.) The Chicago dog is a symphony of vinegar (see: relish, pickles, mustard, sport peppers). The high sugar levels in ketchup dull the vinegar in the ketchup itself, and it would kill the beautiful balance of the dog.

You may use ketchup on your fries.

A Chicago hot dog can come from a chain restaurant (Portillo’s always works), but it should come from a humid hole in the wall named “Frank’s Red Hots” or “George’s Hot Dogs” or “Tony’s Steamers.” A proper dog is steamed, not grilled, and the process, combined with the sticky Chicago summer, should make the restaurant feel like a sauna. I suggest you eat outside.

I would argue that the steam is what makes this food feel like Chicago. We built our city on a swamp, and now we nearly drown in humidity when it gets warm. The steamed hot dogs and buns are the wonderful, terrible heat, and the fresh vegetables and bright vinegar are what get us through. The land and the lake. For me, they’re a tie to the city and the suburbs I grew up in. A chance to exercise my accent. A reminder of Sunday drives with my family. For me, a Chicago hot dog is a Chicago summer.



Jul 7, 2014

Five Tips for Cooking for One

For the last few months, I’ve have the privilege of writing for Food Riot, an irreverent food blog, thereby living out one of my secret dreams of being a food writer. Unfortunately, Food Riot has decided to close. Over the next several weeks, I will be reposting my Food Riot articles here for posterity’s sake. This week’s article originally appeared here on April 14, 2004, and was picked up by Huffington Post here on Apri 18, 2014. 

Five Tips for Cooking for One

I often hear people describe cooking for one as depressing, and, while I usually nod sympathetically, I have almost never found that to be the case. (I do admit to finding it to be sometimes exhausting. Did you know that I expect to eat dinner every single day? I can be very high maintenance.) Usually, though, I consider cooking for myself to be a creative outlet at the end of a long day of staring at a computer screen, and unlike crocheting or writing, when I’m finished cooking, I get to eat the fruits of my labor. After a few years of cooking for one, I’ve figured out a few strategies to make it a little less arduous.

Cook in Batches
Try cooking in big batches. Most recipes are made for 4-6 people anyway, so go forth and eat your leftovers. I like to make a vat of soup on the weekends and bring it to work for lunch for the rest of the week. The afternoons seem to go a lot more smoothly after I’ve had an interesting and filling lunch. I also save a lot of money this way, and am less tempted to run out for fast food on impulse. Win/win.

Reuse Ingredients
I’m not talking about using that curry powder more than once (but, that, too). Reuse ingredients that take extra work. These are the often the ingredients that give foods complex flavors and textures, so don’t waste them. If you’re going to spend half an hour caramelizing onions for a pizza, set some aside for a sandwich the next day. Roasting corn for a salad? Throw some in your soup. My favorite way to do this is to make Naturally Ella’s vegetarian masala, and then use the leftover masala paste for her sweet potato masala skillet.

Have a Plan
There is nothing worse than coming home from a long day of work to see what your live-in chef has prepared for you, only to realize that not only has she not made dinner for you, but she didn’t even do the grocery shopping, and worst of all, she is imaginary. Meal planning sounds like something that people who use “coupon” as a verb do, but having an idea of what you’re going to eat for the week is a great way to eliminate a lot of stress and way-later-than-you-meant-them-to-be meals. Twenty minutes of googling recipes and making a list can save a lot of stress during the week.

One of my favorite things about cooking for myself is that I can make whatever I want. I’m not held back by anyone else’s voluntary or involuntary dietary restrictions. I don’t even have to worry if the food tastes good, because the only one affected by the potential food disaster is me. I got the creative experience out of it, which is part of the reason I made dinner in the first place. Try something new! Recreate something you ate in a restaurant! Grab to random ingredients from your fridge and make them into dinner!

You live by yourself. One of the benefits of that is the flexibility. If you don’t feel like cooking, you don’t always have to. I usually plan for at least one frozen dinner night, because it’s likely that I’m going to be too busy or too tired at some point. And, hey, Trader Joe’s makes delicious frozen dinners.

Okay, your turn. Got any cooking for one tips for me?

Oct 4, 2013

In Which I Reward Myself for Surviving a Third Year

It’s that time again! The time of year where I reward myself for completing basic survival tasks and cover the highlights of the last 365 days. Today Yesterday, October 3, is was my three-year anniversary of living on my own.

I’ll be honest: I almost didn’t have an award ceremony this year. Not because I don’t like collecting badges to celebrate my achievements, but because for the first time, this whole “adult” thing feels like something I am, not something I put on. (Not to say I’m getting better at it or anything. I might argue that I peaked in year two and it’s all YA novels and frozen dinners from here.)

However. I like the idea of rounding this out with year three, and besides, how many formal occasions does a girl get to attend? Cue pomp, circumstance.

We went for a low-key, no-curtain look this year


The Hey, What Happened to Your Roommate? Award

You know what's fun about far-away friends? The mail.

This one time, I met a girl on the Internet and we decided to be roommates. It was an excellent decision, and worked out nicely for some time until she moved back to the Internet. I have mostly forgiven her, and that’s mostly because she sends me enough animated gifs on a daily basis that it’s almost like having a roommate.


The I Thought You Already Had a Cat… Award

She's a lot fluffier than this picture implies

No, but I can see where you might be confused. I catsat for a few months, which gave me the opportunity to warm my landlord up to the idea of me having a cat. Then I gave that cat back, panicked about commitment for a few weeks, and then I brought home Bernadette. She is not technically named after the book, the song, or the Peters, but the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time with each of those things in the last year heavily influenced my decision.

Can I gush for a second? Yeah I can, it’s my blog. Ok, these three years were the longest I’ve lived without animals (barring the mice) ever. It was unpleasant. I was raised with the understanding that animals are essential, so not having any around felt unnatural. I had to resist the urge to dognap dogs on walks. I day-dreamed about cuddling the canadian geese that hang out in parking lots. (They are totally hug-sized. And shaped. Like huggable footballs with necks. I stand by this.) So, now I have my Bernadette. She has transformed from a crabby middle-aged lady in a cage to practically a kitten. There are few things as satisfying as loving a scared little creature until it learns it can trust people again.


The Didn’t You Blog About Finding a Church Like Two Years Ago? Award

So, they gave me this little cross necklace when I joined. Wasn't that nice of them?

Yeah, but that didn’t work out. Instead I bounced around for a couple more years and tried to figure out what exactly I was looking for. I never really decided what that was, but I seem to have found it. I enjoy going to church for the first time since college. I look forward to it. It’s refreshing and sets me up for the week. It’s a good church.


The So This Is Why You Talk about Tacos So Much Award

True friends help you attain your dreams...like your dream of owning a brass armadillo

As I was looking back for defining moments over the last year, I realized that I had been to Austin, TX, twice. In fact, one of the reasons that I forgave Roommate for leaving me was that I would get to visit her there. In my two trips to Austin, I saw: tacos, longhorns, bluebonnets, queso, street art, internet friends, Book People, bronies, tacos, stars both big and bright, yarnbombing, BBQ, cacti, irony, a parade of lowriders showing off their hydraulics, tacos, Zooey Deschanel. In my two trips to Austin, I did not see: the famous bridge bats, brass armadillos. In my two trips to Austin, I firmly believe I saw: Ryan Gosling. You people should just believe me. Also, tacos.


The What Is It With You And The Celebrity Sightings? Award

It was way to warm to be wearing a felt hat in Texas, Zooey. That was your tell.

For many years, my biggest brush with celebrity (outside of organized meetings like book signings and Disney World character breakfasts) was that one time Oprah’s Stedman ran into me while crossing Michigan Avenue. Then, in the last year, I’ve had three distinct interactions. Now, I’m not saying that celebrities are more special than other people, but I am saying it is fun to see people that you’re used to seeing on giant screens and in magazines completely out of context. Stars! They’re Just Like Us!

1) Ryan Gosling, while walking down South Congress with Sharone and Christine. This is questionable, but I like things in threes and I know he was there that weekend, so we’re going with it.

2) Zooey Deschanel, while standing in line at the a Austin airport. I heard someone talking in ZD’s voice, turned around to look, and a very small, very shiny person in over-sized sunglasses and an unseasonably warm hat clapped a hand over her mouth. She had to take the hat and glasses off for security and looked terrified that she’d be besieged by adorable Austin-dwelling Zooeyites. I have never been so grateful to not need sunglasses and a bodyguard.

3) Anne Lamott at the Picasso in Chicago exhibit at the Art Institute. There I was, minding my own business, trying to appreciate noses on multiple planes or something, when I said to my friend Kristin, “Um, that lady. The blonde one with the dreads. Is that Anne Lamott?” And so commenced a 20 minute very cool, covert Anne Lamott-stalking period. After a little while, I got up the courage to say hello and tell her how much I (and my mom) appreciate her, and she thanked me and turned the conversation to Picasso, and how amazing it was just to be in the same room with something that great. Her whole face crinkles when she smiles.


The Was I Supposed to Ask About the Tomatoes? Award

Actually, my watering can is shaped like a duck and isn't really functional. I might get a big-girl watering can eventually.

I mean, you don’t have to. But, yes, I did grow a plant that produced food which I could eat. It was good, but next year I should probably remember to water more.


And that’s this year, approximately. It was a learning year more than a doing year, really, but that’s ok. Do me a favor and bring your programs out with you. It makes clean-up a lot easier for the ushers.

In case you’re wondering, here’s my first and my second award ceremony.

May 29, 2013

An Explanation of Sorts

20130529-003119.jpgI have a “no apologies” policy with this blog. I know that if I every time there’s a long stretch between posts I write an “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry I haven’t posted” introduction, I’ll shame myself into never posting at all, and that’s not the point of this thing.

(Which might raise the question, what is the point of this thing? We here at Staircase Wit the Blog think that that is an excellent question, and we will totally get back to you on that.)

This year has not gone as planned. I made a lot of promises to myself that I just wasn’t able to keep. I’m a little embarrassed that I made those grand pronouncements at the beginning of the year, and then remade those pronouncements a month later, and now I’m writing this.

So this is a sort of apology, sort of explanation, sort of prime-the-pump kind of blog post. I’m wiping the dust off the ol’ WordPress admin tools and trying to get my fingers to remember what it’s like to type words that aren’t for work emails.

Call this my six month update. (I know it’s May. It’s a long month. Just go with it.) I gave myself two goals this year: get stuff done, and get a cat. While I can’t report that I have a cat, I can say that I have Nefarious Plans, and that they are In Motion. As far as getting things done? Well, does learning things count? I’ve been learning things. Lots of things. About trust and faith and grace and thankfulness. I’ve put in a request to not learn anything new for the rest of the year, but I have a funny feeling that this is not a year for coasting. (Not to say that it’s been a downright terrible year. There have been some amazing highlights and some remarkable blessings thrown in with the hard stuff and as a result of the hard stuff.)

Honestly? I have no idea what this year is going to look like, or if I’m going to do accomplish anything close to what I had planned. I just wanted to do the bloggy equivalent of stretching my legs, flexing my muscles, and getting some of the kinks out of my neck.

So, there’s me. How are you?

Mar 22, 2013

Fox & Squid

I recently faced a major shortcoming in my life. “Major” might be the wrong word. Also maybe not “shortcoming.” The word I’m looking for is whatever you call it when you realize that you really want to hang art on your walls, but you don’t want to/can’t pay more money for it. That word. It’s probably German, like most good words about frugality and desire.

All of this to say, I made some stuff. I wanted some things to hang on my wall, so I went to my old standbys: an X-acto knife and some pretty paper.

What I like about making pictures this way is that I can’t exactly draw, but I really like looking at things and breaking them down into their most basic shapes, and then making a sort of puzzle, except I’m both making the pieces and then putting them together.

I made the first thing around the time I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. The book wasn’t everything I wanted it to be, but I loved the cover and the image of the orange fox in the white snow (and it reminded me a bit of this that I made a few Christmases ago). Also, we had a few foxes in our yard and on our street growing up, and they’re such pretty, graceful animals. (Sometimes we mistook them for stray cats. Hilarity ensued.)


I was tempted to make Blue Boy and Pinkie foxes, but then they released the first ever footage of the giant squid, and I had cephalopods on the brain even more than I usually do. So, now it’s more like Fox Boy and Squidy, but let’s never call them that.



I hung them in these gold frames that I found at a thrift store. I’m pretty sure I made a solemn oath to not hang the frames without painting something less gaudy, but I’m also pretty sure oaths made via text message while in the throes of thrifting aren’t admissible in a court of law. Or my apartment.



I thought that how I made this last thing was sort of interesting, so I’d write it like a tutorial, because I have a deep and true love of DIY blogs. I hold that I have loved ampersands since before it was cool to love ampersands. My proof is that I searched the entire internet for ampersand-themed jewelry back in 2008 and found not a thing. Now you can buy ampersand earrings at every hipster craft fair (and believe me, I do), but I still love them and put them everywhere in my house. I considered trying to free-hand an ampersand to frame, but I had a feeling that that would be disastrous. I was going to print a template, but that would have involved a lot of wires and ink and seemed vaguely bad-retro, so I did this instead.

Using Your iPad as a Lightbox to Make a Pretty Thing

What You’ll Need:
an iPad
scotch tape
tissue paper
X-acto knife
pretty paper in two colors
rubber cement

Decide what letter or punctuation mark you’d like to make. I recommend ampersands because they are prettiest, but you can have opinions, too. Type that character into the iPad word processor of your choice in the font of your choice and in the largest possible font size. (I used Pages so I could use Apple’s default fonts, and the font I used was Didot.)

Take a screenshot of that character by pressing the on/off switch and the home button on your iPad at the same time. This gives an image to manipulate, and is much easier to deal with than an iPad word document.


Open the image in Photos. This is where the tracing and the tissue paper comes in. My tissue paper was purple and wrinkled, but this probably isn’t necessary. You could even use real tracing paper if you’re that kind of fancy. Cut a piece of tissue paper to be a little larger than the screen of your iPad, and wrap it around, taping on the back of the device. At this point, I laid my frame on the screen and adjusted the size of the ampersand. (The touchscreen still works through the tissue paper. Magic.)

Trace the image with a pencil, but be careful to keep your hand off the screen, or you’ll move the image around. If you do move the image, just move it back using what you’ve already traced as a guideline. It’s kind of like a really easy puzzle from a Nancy Drew game. You know, if you’re into that kinda thing.

Untape the tissue paper from the iPad, being careful not to rip it. Trim the tissue paper down, and tape it to your pretty paper. I like using scrapbook paper because it’s nice and thick and acid free, and you can find every color, texture, and pattern known to man if you go to one of the scrapbooker’s holy places, like Archivers.


Cut out the character with your X-acto knife. What I love about using X-acto knives is that you’re practically drawing with a knife. (But if you make a mistake, you can’t erase. Work slowly.) Be careful around corners; it’s easy to overshoot. I usually work out from inside corners, which keeps the overshooting at bay.

Glue your cut-out down with rubber cement. I use Q-tips for the small details. Trim your paper to the size of your frame, hang it, and feel proud of yourself. Text a picture of it to your mom.



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Feb 28, 2013

Staircase Review, Vol. 2

20130228-235534.jpgCan I call these posts “volumes”? I’m not sure. I just went around and looked at all the magazines in my house (some Martha Stewart Livings and a few literary journals, and the two InStyles from 2006 that are currently employed in maintaining the shape of my brown boots) and could not find a defined industry standard, and THEN I remembered that that’s why God made the CMOS, but just when I opened my copy, I realized that I was really just procrastinating because I gave myself a job, and that job is to write this post, which means that looking up magazine issue numbering styles is only slightly more interesting than usual and why am I even trying to categorize this with magazines, it’s a blog post, and also have I even seen the inside of my medicine cabinet? I really need to take care of that mess. When I’m done writing this post. Because I have an attention span. Like an adult.

So. These are some books I have read recently.

Bel Canto by Ann PatchettBel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto is the story of a Japanese businessman, Hosokawa, who cares about one thing, and that thing is opera. Hosokawa is invited to meet his favorite soprano at a state event in (an unnamed) South American and goes, knowing that the party is given in his honor, that the South Americans will expect this party to open up trade, and knowing that he will not do any business with the country beyond this party. He goes to see Roxanne Coss, the soprano. The party is hijacked by Spanish-speaking freedom fighters, who, in their confusion, kidnap everyone at the party: Russian business men, French diplomats, American Coss, Japanese Hosokawa, and his translator. There is no common language but the music.

The book feels like a dream. Most of the dialogue goes through the translator, which almost gives it the feeling of listening to a conversation through a glass against a door. (Sometimes I forgot the translator is there until I see him standing in the corner, translating the conversation I was reading reading, and then I was kind of mad at Patchett because how in the world do you do that with just words?) Relationships form around the sopranos singing, and the hostages and kidnappers begin to build a community, and the reader learns about this through a constantly changing perspective. The book is beautiful and hopeful and heartbreaking, as all the best books are. This is a book I will read again and again.

Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures by Emma StraubLaura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub
Elsa Emerson has grown up in the theater her parents own in Door County, Wisconsin. All she wants is to be on the stage, and once she gets her first part, all she needs is to go to Hollywood. Elsa finds her way, is transformed to Laura Lamont, and climbs her way up to being a real-live movie star.

I like this book because it feels like I could switch out the names and it could be about any starlet. It’s a small story about a larger-than-life time and place. It’s a peek behind the kitchen curtains of the beautiful black-and-white women I’ve always watched, but it’s written in a way that feels true, not voyeuristic. I read this just before listening to Beautiful Ruins, and they were almost perfect companions. While Laura Lamont follows the story of one woman through her childhood on the stage, grown-up stardom, and (spoiler alert) eventual aging, Beautiful Ruins twists five or six storylines together to tell a similar story on a grander scale about golden-age Hollywood, success, failure, love and loss.

Around the Internet
The Extraordinary Science of Junkfood
This is how they get you. There’s nothing in here about Trader Joe’s new rocket-ship-shaped cheese crackers, probably because things shaped like rocket ships are intrinsically healthful.

The Secret Burrito
Speaking of which, this burrito is my new life goal. It’s not even that it sounds that good, it’s just that I like secret burrito codes.

Adventures in Amish Fiction
A lit fic reader takes a look at Amish fiction.

Fireside Magazine Year 2
Remember when I told you about Fireside Magazine and how it’s a fiction magazine dedicated to good stories and paying the writers who write them? Well, they’re working on funding year two of the magazine. It’s kind of a long story, but if the Kickstarter gets funded, I get a share in a pony. So, check it out and consider donating.

Happy March, happy people. This is my favorite month, and not just because I have 31 days to drink 31 shamrock shakes.

By the way, that photo is from the library at the Irish American Heritage Center, where I spent a few hours with my family last weekend. This explains why book titles are in a language you can’t read. Unless you read Gaelic, in which case we should have a discussion about how you’re supposed to tell me when you can read Gaelic.

Feb 13, 2013

Happy New Year…Again


I believe very strongly that you are what you do, not what you aspire to do. This sounds like a bad self-help book, but let me explain.

If I introduced myself to you as Jesse, a musician, you would probably, politely, ask me what instrument I play. Oh, I don’t really play anything, I’d reply. I’d like to play something. Sometimes I think very hard about how I’d like a guitar. Maybe I’ll even buy one and take lessons one day. I imagine the conversation would get uncomfortable at this point, and we’d start talking talking about the weather.

You are what you make time to do right now. You are what you prioritize. When I was little, I read books every spare minute I could. I was a reader. Do you know what makes me a reader now? That I read books. Not that I did read books 20 years ago. That I read books now.

I’m not trying to make any grand statements about identity and what it means. That’s above my pay grade. There is more to you than what you do, obviously. What I am trying to say is that if I call myself a writer, but spend all my free time organizing my cabinets because I’m too scared or too intimidated to sit down and write, then I’m not a writer, I’m a person with these great gray shelf liners that really pull my mismatched mugs together. (For real. It’s so orderly in there.)

I also don’t mean that it’s wrong to have more than one thing going on, or that it’s wrong to be in a season of life that changes your priorities or moves them out of your control. I do think that you need to be honest with yourself about why your priorities are different and if they’re really out of your control. Of course, when I say “you,” I mean “me.”

Today a friend asked me how often I write. I rounded the number up and then hid under my keyboard.

January was a stupid month. It was supposed to be a blank slate: Roommate moved back home, 2013 began, and I had a fresh start. I was going to get things done. Instead, I watched a lot of StarTrek. I was sick for a good chunk of the month, and for the rest I felt like a failure relationally, emotionally, professionally, spiritually, domestically, financially, automobily. Some things were not my fault (my car needed a new axel!), some things were (I backed into a parked car!).

I’m not totally sure what January being a dumb month has to do with being what you do, but I do know that I’m tired. I feel like a failure and like I can’t handle this stuff on my own. Like this might be what it feels like to learn humility and to depend on Christ and I don’t like it one bit.

I can’t changes my circumstances, but I can change how I respond to them. I can understand my limits. I can learn. Anne Lamott likes to say that you can start a new 24-hour period any time you like. I want to say that I’m going to apply that to my year, but not in a way that means I get a blank slate. Consequences are okay. I need to learn what I’m learning. I can’t do this by myself and I wasn’t made to. What I want is to drive a stake in the ground to mark the time when I stopped hiding and stopped moping. To take this 45 day period for what it was, and keep trudging. To do what I must do. Happy New Year. Carry on.

Jan 17, 2013

Staircase Review, Vol. 1

books and books and booksOnce upon a time, when I started this blog, I wanted it to be a book review blog. But I didn’t really know what I was doing or how much work that would be, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t a book review blog anymore. It was a sometimes-I-talk-about-what’s-going-on-in-my-life kinda blog and that’s about where’s it’s at now.

However, books are included in “what’s-going-on-in-my-life” and so what I am going to try to do is a sort of monthly recap of what I’m reading and what I think about it.

My current reading system is to keep my unread books on a shelf in my bedroom where they can stare me down with their uncracked spines, and then move completed books down to my spare staircase, where they can get dusty and look out the window. (Current books stay in my purse where they can have coffee spilled on them.) And so, I’m going to call this semi-regular feature “Staircase Review.” Because I’m reviewing books which I have recently moved to my staircase! And my blog’s name is “Staircase Wit”! It’s all making sense now! Right?

This won’t be a complete list of everything I’ve read, but it’ll cover the highlights. I’ll also talk about some of the articles I’ve read, because, well, I tend to read a lot of those.



Quiet by Susan Cain (audiobook)
In my last post I mentioned that I spent most of my Christmas trip home talking about introversion and extroversion. This book is why. Cain spent much of the book making it okay to be in introvert. She explained an introvert’s value and how modern society has pushed that value aside. It was encouraging, but after a while I wanted more practical ideas on how to function as an introvert in this extroverted world. (I imagine that someone who grew up in a less supportive household than I did might appreciate the encouragement more.)

There were three points that Cain made that I thought were particularly interesting (which means that I thought they were true of me): 1) Introverts will “go extrovert” for things which they are passionate about, 2) the American Church values extroverts, often overlooks introverts for leadership positions, and has pretty much thrown out quiet and reflection, and 3) that introverts like collaborating online and often have an easier time expressing themselves internetly, to which I said, “well hello, all of my Internet friends.”

Overall, I thought this was a great book and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s ever been told that they’re a little too quiet.

I really like the fox in this.The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
I wanted this book to be perfect. It’s a fairy tale about snow, and that should be my favorite thing. It’s a retelling of a Russian fairy tale about an old childless couple who build a baby for themselves out of snow.  Ivey set the book in 1920s Alaska and made the old man and woman a quiet and sad mismatched couple from the east coast. It seemed that Ivey was trying to keep a balance between a dreamy fairyland and a hyperreal claim town. Instead, it felt like she teeter-tottered: Magical snow storm! Thump. Let’s gut a moose! Thump. Sullen man-dialog. Thump. Let’s make this chapter italic! Th-thump!

I thought Ivey’s use of geography was confusing. For example: the main characters moved wayyyy out into the middle of the wilderness to be alone and sad together, but they’re close enough to their neighbor’s house for dinner. Everyone is terribly far away, but just close enough to come set a spell. The snow child would run far, far away, but then it would only take a few minutes to get her home. Maybe this was supposed to add to the mystical feeling of the Alaskan wilderness, but instead I just had a difficult time getting a picture of the place in my head.

It’s possible that I wanted this book to be something that it wasn’t supposed to be, so it might not be fair of me to be so harsh. It was a pretty story and I learned a lot about how to clean game that wasn’t covered in Little House on the Prairie. While I couldn’t get a decent map in my head, I did love the cold, open atmosphere of the book and the sad, quiet feeling with which it left me. It isn’t a perfect book, but it is perfect for the snowless winter we’re having in Chicago.

Thanks, Grandma. Fireside Magazine, Winter 2012
This is the third issue of Fireside Magazine, and it is most certainly the best yet. Fireside Magazine was started by my friend Brian White when he decided there should be a place for fiction writers to publish good stories…and also get paid well for them. Each issue has four short stories and a comic. The first story, and my favorite, “Form and Void,” takes place in futuristic world where humans, at least the wealthy ones, have the ability to splice their genes in order to shape their bodies and download their memories into precious stones. I love the image of the spoiled girl adorning herself with all her memories of past slights. It’s worth the price of the magazine. The rest of the stories are terrifying, thought-provoking, maybe a little absurd, and good.




Around the Internet…

Downton Abbey, Season 3
Seth Stevenson has been one of my favorite columnists for years, and just because he loves me back, he’s writing recaps of Downton Abbey every Monday.

Why The Atlantic’s Scientology Advertorial was Bad
The Church of Scientology bought space to run an article praising the Church of Scientology in The Atlantic. Then The Atlantic deleted any comments on the article that were critical of Scientology. This was bad. This article by Erin Kissane explains why.

RIP, Aaron Swartz 
The very sad end of a very smart man. This isn’t about me, but there is something unsettling about the tragic death of someone who is my age, who grew up in my city, and whose work wasn’t finished.

Moths Drink the Tears of Sleeping Birds
I thought you’d want to know, is all.


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